Tuesday, May 11, 2010

An Education Officer's Outlook

I am relatively new to the post of Education Officer at Dorchester Abbey, having taken over in January 2010 from the previous officer who had been in the post for 3 years. It has been a fantastic experience so far, just being able to walk into the Abbey as a working space is amazing, particularly when you think of the people, such as the monks, who have worked here before me over the centuries! It is a positive joy to get the opportunity to introduce people, particularly children to the beauty and history of the Abbey and see their little eyes light up as they look up with awe at the stained glass windows, to think about what the pilgrim’s shrine means and just how old the Abbey is! They give you an insight into the innocence of the believers of the past who must have traversed great distances to visit the Abbey and experience its space, spirituality and potential healing powers.

On Wednesday of last week we had a school visit of about 40 year three children from a local school, which was only the second school visit I have had the pleasure of organising and participating in. The children were brilliantly behaved and thrilled by the sheer scale of the Abbey space. They provided some stimulating responses to their first encounter with it as they sat for a few moments of quiet to ‘drink in’ the sensations of the Abbey. Many of them noted how small they felt in relation to the Abbey’s scale, but they also spoke about the nuances of sounds and impressions that greeted them in their moments of quietude, that ‘almost silence’. But children are always funny when you ask them to guess how old something is – any grandparent who has ever been asked if they were alive when the dinosaurs were around will certainly recognise a child’s tendency not to grasp vast time periods! Many of the children thought the Abbey could only be about 100-200 years old, but were visibly astounded when one girl piped up ‘about 900 years old’ and she was deemed correct! Murmurs of great surprise could barely be quieted!

During their visit the children undertook a series of organised activities including my tour of the highlights of the Abbey, brass rubbing, sketching, Abbey Quiz, Abbey search and plan identification. The Abbey was a hive of activity and the children overlapped slightly with a local art group who were here for inspiration, but the artists enjoyed observing the raptures of the children who were intent on their various endeavours during their visit. The children are always enthusiastic about every aspect of their visit, but one of the two things they love the most is our medieval ‘sleeping knight’, William de Valance and our facsimile St. Birinus Shrine. They love the shrine because they can sit and pretend to be a pilgrim of old, looking up at the unusual bosses and supposedly being close to the bones (ugh!) of St. Birinus.
Knights and their exciting endeavours always enthral the children, and they particularly love to work out that the ‘sleeping knight’ actually has his eyes open and appears to be ready to bound up and attack anyone who comes near, with the lion he visibly crushes at his feet a symbol of his strength, bravery and powerful faith. On a more frivolous note they also love to discover the fact that you can see his underwear!

At lunchtime the children were very lucky with the sunny weather, enabling them to enjoy their lunch in the Cloister Garden and the opportunity to burn off a little energy on the daisy sprinkled grass. After their Abbey activities they also undertook a brief walk in the village to note the various buildings of different ages and styles, including the ever-popular former coaching inn complete with its fascinating old coach in front. I love the follow up work which schools do with their pupils and it provides one with a feeling of great satisfaction when you can see how the Abbey can stimulate the imagination and creativity of young minds. Although I have yet to see follow up work from the most recent visit, the previous school sent through some fantastic stories that the children had written fuelled by their Abbey visit.

Children are not the only visitors who come to explore the Abbey and its artefacts. Earlier in the week I had a very earnest couple, ‘Midsommer Murders’ guidebook in hand looking for our Green Man. They had difficulty deciphering the description of the location of it from in their book, luckily I was able to point them in the right direction as they said they never would have found it otherwise!

In complete contrast to the school visit was another pleasurable part of my duties as Educational Officer and that is my involvement with the South East Cathedrals Educational Officers Association. We meet three times a year, once in each of the traditional old school terms: November, February and May. These meetings give us an opportunity to exchange educational ideas that have or have not worked for us, report on recent training we have undertaken or provided and to offer advice and stimulus to one another in our roles. As my position at Dorchester can sometimes be relatively secluded I particular relish the opportunity of meeting with my fellow education officers. In February I went to Chichester and was wonderfully fired up by their stained glass workshop for children and their large brass rubbing collection. The latter led me to try and investigate the possibility of building up a collection here as a potential enticement to schools as part of their visits.

This term’s meeting was hosted by Alex O’Connor of Southwark Cathedral, London. We had quite a full meeting (10 of us!) and an intensive morning where we discussed marketing issues, home educators, providing stimulating family activities, NIACE training, our role in relation to the 14-19 Diplomas, providing RE inset and new initiatives we have introduced. Following a delightful sandwich lunch those of us who didn’t suffer from vertigo were given the opportunity to climb the tower (once the organ recital had finished) and see the surrounding views it had to offer. This was entered into with some trepidation by a few of us, the spiral staircase to the top providing barely enough room for a skinny youth to climb, let alone an ensemble of education officers (n.b. What would be a good collective noun for education officers?)! Once part way up we were able to traverse the walkway over the roof of the nave, where we could see the peaked roofs of the vaulting beneath. This appears pretty much the same in any Gothic vaulted cathedral, for example Salisbury, and more of interest to those with an architectural bent (which I count myself amongst)! We also were able a quick peek at their impressive 12 bells, again of interest to those with bell-ringing inclinations (yes, me again!).

Finally emerging on the lead roofing we were greeted with a fabulous view of the Thames and a superb view of St. Paul’s – much appreciated by Laura (the former Education Officer there who is now establishing the education department at Westminster Abbey). You could spy Battersea Power Station in the distance, Big Ben, the London Eye, 30 St. Mary’s Axe (aka the Gherkin), Monument, and in the distance behind the hulking brown h shaped contemporary building you could just spy Tower Bridge and the ramparts of The Tower. But a dominant visual note was the ever increasing height of the new Shard building destined to be the tallest in the UK (310m or over 1,000ft in ‘old money’) when completed in 2012 (hmm, what will that be timed to coincide with I wonder….?!).(see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shard_London_Bridge) For those interested in architecture, it is designed by Renzo Piano who was responsible for the Kansai Osaka Japan international airport and more famously worked with Richard Rogers on the Pompidou Building in Paris.

Following our grateful return to earth (we didn't quite feel the need to kiss the floor of the nave, but I'm sure it crossed some of our minds!), Alex showed those stalwarts amongst us around the cathedral, most of which is a Victorian reworking by the dreaded George Gilbert Scott (are there any Gothic churches, abbeys and cathedrals out there that escaped his renovating talons?). It was interesting to note they have a wooden knight who is similar in appearance and date to our own 'sleeping knight'. I was very surprized to bump into someone I new in the retro-choir who was 'Walking the Cathedral Cities of England' (hello again Carolyn!)! The entire day was a huge success and we all went away feeling inspired by our visit and fired up to pursue various ideas on our returns to our respective patches!

If you’ve managed to make it this far – congratulations! I do hope you’ve found these glimpses into my role as an Education Officer of interest and if you enjoyed this I’ll be posting another blog next month, which will cover preparation for more school visits and the up-coming archaeological dig, amongst other things! But please look again at next week’s blog where Sue, our Rector, will report on her current visit to Kenya, and that, I can assure you, is certain to prove a more fascinating read!
(Blog posted by Margaret Craig, Education Officer)

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